In 1883, McKim, Mead & White designed a group of houses known as the Montauk Point Association, and Frederick Law Olmsted was consulted on the grounds and common facilities. The homes, which ranged from 4,000 sq. ft. to 7,000 sq. ft., are excellent examples of this firm’s more restrained and innovative work. That is, they were intended as vacation lodges, not the palatial Neoclassical mansions that we normally associate with the work of these gentlemen. The association and its structures are excellently described in Samuel G. White’s Houses of McKim, Mead & White. Each distinctive house, now lovingly restored, sports all of the features that we associate with what’s now known as the Shingle Style – expansive roofs, Colonial Revival trim and facades composed of all or mostly shakes. They’re all lovely and textbook-quality buildings, and I’m sure anyone reading this would love to own, or at least spend a summer in, one of them, staring off into the Atlantic.
In the book, there’s also a mid-1880s photograph showing at least seven of these houses popping up out of the open fields like mushrooms after a particularly rainy spring. So, here’s my annoying rhetorical question: Why are these dwellings different from any cul-de-sac cluster of McMansions that have been plunked down on some formerly pristine coastline or farmland? Yes, they were designed by the greatest American architectural firm of the latter 19th century. (Unless you’re a Peabody and Stearns or Richardson fanatic, and I know I’m conveniently pushing Frank Lloyd Wright to the turn of the century to make my point. So there.) But think for a moment; back in 1883, as the soil was being torn up, do you think the neighboring farmers in Montauk were muttering about whatever the equivalent, late-Victorian term was for “a buncha damned Yuppies with more money than brains?”
The same could be said for many, if not all, of the grander houses we see around us. At one point, someone thought that the Second Empire residence with the five-story, mansard-roofed tower on Maple Street was a vulgar and ostentatious display of wealth. Look at any New England or Upstate New York town common: in the 1820s, everyone was just deliriously happy with their end-gabled Federals and Saltboxes until that pretentious Greek Revival with those huge two-story columns got wedged in between Ye Olde Taverne and the Brewster homestead.
I know there’s a vast qualitative difference between an A. J. Downing Gothic “cottage” and some crappy design-build firm’s Tudor-Ranch mélange, but in 100 years hence, are the residents of East Smudgely, VT, going to mandate preservation restrictions on polyurethane crown moldings?
My grumblings have less to do with the caliber of architecture and are more concerned with development and the disappearance of open space. Don’t we all have the right to build a home to our taste and budget?
Or is it that everyone thinks that their house should be the last one built in any given town?
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but feel free to fire back at me.